A Nuclear North Korea’s Wake-up Call

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A Nuclear North Korea’s Wake-up Call

A spectacular pre-dawn parade on Saturday served to remind the world of North Korea’s continuing missile progress.

A Nuclear North Korea’s Wake-up Call
Credit: Rodong Sinmun

On Saturday, October 10, North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the country’s ruling party. The occasion was celebrated in a grand way, with an unprecedented pre-dawn military parade. Thousands of uniformed military personnel marched through Pyongyang’s renovated Kim Il Sung Square in perfect unison, trailed by scores of heavy military vehicles.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un kicked the occasion off with a public address. An emotional Kim acknowledged that 2020 had been a difficult year for the country. North Korea locked its borders down early this year, acknowledging the coronavirus pandemic as a possible threat to its “national survival.” Kim claimed that not a single case of the disease had been detected in North Korea—a claim disputed by experts. He went on to apologize nonetheless for shortfalls in his promises of economic development, citing a difficult external environment amid international sanctions and the spate of natural disasters that struck the country this summer, including multiple floods and typhoons.

But Kim’s core message stuck to familiar themes, emphasizing that the WPK’s leadership would see North Korea through dark and difficult times. He also emphasized his continuing commitment to national defense—albeit without directly using the world “nuclear.” “We will continue to strengthen the war deterrent, the righteous self-defense means, so as to contain and control all the dangerous attempts and intimidatory acts by the hostile forces, including their sustained and aggravating nuclear threat,” Kim said, refusing to shy away from the continuing prominence of nuclear weapons in the country’s national defense strategy.

Kim said that his nuclear weapons “will never be abused or used as a means for preemptive strike. He clarified, however, that if “any forces infringe upon the security of our state and attempt to have recourse to military force against us, I will enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish them.” This was a restatement of North Korea’s offensively oriented nuclear strategy, which reserves the right for nuclear first-use to deter adverse military action against its territory or leadership.

The nighttime staging of the military parade certainly caught overseas analysts off-guard, but if there was a rationale, it wasn’t about obscuring views of the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA’s) new military kit. Instead, the brightly lit display of military might amid the darkness of the night evoked themes in North Korean propaganda over the last year, since the collapse of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy at the February 2019 Hanoi summit. The nighttime setting seemed to underscore that under the WPK’s continuing guidance and the KPA’s self-reliant national defense capabilities, North Korea would triumph and persevere. After all, at 75, North Korea’s founding party has now outlasted the Soviet Union, which managed a 74-year lifespan.

A ‘New Strategic Weapon,’ As Promised

The parade reached its climax with the reveal of an all-new intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) design. Prior to the parade, North Korea’s largest known nuclear-capable ballistic missile was the Hwasong-15, the ICBM that was tested for the first (and so far only) time in November 2017. After four Hwasong-15s rolled through Kim Il Sung Square, an even larger missile appeared in its wake. Four of these super-large ICBMs followed in the wake of the Hwasong-15s, in a single file formation. Not only were these missiles the largest ever to be seen in North Korea, they were the largest road-mobile missiles on integrated launchers seen anywhere in the world.

The reveal of a new ICBM wasn’t particularly surprising. Kim, at his December 2019 report to the 5th Plenary of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK, promised that the world would soon witness a “new strategic weapon.” That same month, North Korea’s Academy of National Defense Science oversaw two apparent liquid propellant missile engine tests at the static engine test stand at Sohae. Though no pictures or video were released of those tests, state media emphasized their “important” nature.

True to form, the new missile—whose name is unknown, but is presumably “Hwasong-16” following North Korea’s naming conventions—appeared to be a large two-stage liquid propellant ICBM. Its unveiling at a parade commemorating a significant WPK founding anniversary was consistent with past precedent. The 70th anniversary celebrations in October 2015 culminated in the reveal of a modified Hwasong-13 ICBM. In October 2010, North Korea similarly revealed the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile. The reveal of the new ICBM saw Kim keep his promise to show the world his “new strategic missile.”

For the United States, this missile is not good news. Not only does it underscore the failure of the Trump administration’s diplomatic attempts to constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; it also emphasizes the continuing growth of Pyongyang’s qualitative capabilities. A lot remains unknown about the precise capabilities of this new missile, but its sheer size certainly implies that it would be capable of carrying and delivering multiple nuclear reentry vehicles to likely the entire continental U.S. As North Korea’s weapons-grade fissile material stocks continue to grow, it likely will have enough fissile material on hand to justify allocating resources toward a multiple reentry vehicle capability.

The strategic logic of such investments is straightforward for North Korea, which seeks render credible its nuclear deterrent in the face of U.S. doubts and, more seriously, missile defenses. Like the Soviet Union, North Korea will likely respond to economic incentives. All else being equal, it will be cheaper for North Korea to add warheads to a limited number of ICBMs instead of building out a massive fleet of single reentry vehicle-capable ICBMs. More seriously, North Korea apparently continues to be limited in the number of ICBM-ready launch vehicles it possess. This bottleneck, too, will make multiple reentry vehicles appealing.

But Pyongyang will have another consideration: overwhelming the Alaska-based U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, the only U.S. missile defense system tested against ICBM-class targets. By adding warheads to its ICBMs, North Korea will improve the probability that at least one of its thermonuclear reentry vehicles successfully penetrates U.S. missile defenses. To keep up with changes in North Korea’s growing force, the U.S. will have to spend hundreds of millions adding interceptors. North Korea, meanwhile, even under economic sanctions, appears fully capable of continuing to expand its ICBM capabilities.

The Hwasong-16 is likely to be the focus of much analytical energy in the U.S. and elsewhere in the coming months. The missile remains untested and Washington will be keen to keep it so. When Kim hinted at his “new strategic weapons” last December, he also formally ended his April 2018 unilateral moratorium on testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons—to facilitate the conditions for productive diplomacy. But now, with a U.S. election around the corner and his moratorium no longer in place, Kim may look to conduct another ICBM test. Not only would this have technical value for advancing North Korea’s deterrent, but it would also likely give a fillip to internal ideological fervor ahead of the WPK’s 8th Party Congress in January 2021 , which was announced late in the summer.

Despite the nighttime setting, Kim’s reveal of his new ICBM made it clear as day that North Korea remained a capable and growing nuclear state.

Progress With Solid Propellants

While the ICBM understandably seized headlines, the October 10 military parade included a celebration of North Korea’s other missile capabilities and general missile modernization. Since November 2017, every single North Korean missile to have seen testing has used solid propellants. While liquid propellants can be more efficient and energetic, solid propellants are cast into missile airframes at the time of manufacture, obviating the need for immediate fueling prior to use. As a result, these types of missiles are more responsive in a crisis and can enhance survivability.

While North Korea has used small-diameter solid propellant missiles for more than a decade, beginning in 2019, it tested three suites of larger-diameter solid propellant short-range ballistic missiles. While the North Korean names for these missiles aren’t known, the U.S. intelligence community has dubbed them the KN23, KN24, and KN25 respectively. The testing success rate for these three systems is high, with no known KN23 or KN24 flight failures, and a single suspected KN25 failure in flight. Overall, these missiles represent the burgeoning modernization of North Korea’s short-range conventional precision strike capability. Pyongyang has suggested that these capabilities would be used to hold at risk South Korean military facilities, including airfields where Seoul may base its advanced F-35A Panther stealth fighters.

The parade appearance of these systems was hardly surprising in this context. Kim has not only applauded these systems, but also conferred major promotions on key officials associated with realizing their potential. Ri Pyong Chol, for instance, was promoted to the rank of marshal of the KPA days before the October 10 parade and played an instrumental role in the testing program for these systems. Ri, today, appears to be one of Kim’s most trusted advisors and even kicked off the parade on the ground on October 10.

But beyond the suite of short-range solid propellant systems, a new missile made an appearance at the parade. Towed on flatbeds, four missiles labeled Pukguksong-4 followed. North Korea has used the “Pukguksong” (or “North Star”) naming convention for its larger-diameter, nuclear-capable solid propellant missiles, beginning with the Pukguksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). In October 2019, the Pukguksong-3, a follow-on SLBM, was tested. The Pukguksong-4, seen for the first time at the parade, appears to be an all-new missile—possibly intended for deployment on land.

Little is known about the performance parameters of the untested missile, but what is concerning is its apparently large diameter, which may match or exceed that of the Pukguksong-3. North Korea has shown that it is willing to bring its naval missiles on land; the Pukguksong-2, for instance, followed the Pukguksong-1 and to this day remains North Korea’s longest-range land-based solid propellant medium-range ballistic missile. It too made an appearance at the parade. But the Pukguksong-4 may presage a more dangerous future ahead: one where North Korea may possess not just multiple reentry vehicle-capable liquid ICBMs, but solid ICBMs alongside them.

North Korea is idiosyncratic in its willingness to deploy large liquid propellant ICBMs in a road mobile configuration. No other nuclear state has deployed liquid propellant missiles of these sizes on road mobile transporter-erector-launchers, given the operational and safety complications. A solid propellant ICBM would represent a logical evolution for North Korea’s nuclear forces and Pyongyang has signaled its interest in such weapons. The April 15, 2017, military parade, for instance, culminated in the demonstration of two aspirational canisterized missile designs that appeared to be indicate aspirations for solid propellant ICBMs.

Modernization Across the Board

Beyond the country’s missile forces, the military parade also featured prominent conventional weapon systems and related support equipment, including a new air defense radar, an apparent “prototype” main battle tank, and new anti-tank guided missiles. Given that the parade was broadcast with a delay, Korean Central Television even broadcast footage of neon-clad MiG-29 fighters—the most advanced fighters in the Korean People’s Air Force inventory—taking off from Sunchon Air Force Base near Pyongyang and overflying Kim Il Sung Square. From the “strategic” nuclear forces all the way down to armor and even small arms, the parade was a celebration of North Korea’s apparent ability to survive and innovate under harsh economic sanctions.

The parade raises natural questions about the next phase in potential U.S.-North Korea or multilateral diplomacy to seek limits on Pyongyang’s progress, which remains unencumbered. An immediate issue of concern is missile testing. With the exception of a spate of tests in March this year, North Korea has kept a low profile as it deals internally with the pandemic and natural disasters. But Kim Jong Un has recently declared an “80-day” battle ahead of the anticipated January 2021 8th Party Congress. Whether either event will coincide with a new ICBM test is uncertain, but much may depend on how the U.S. election pans out. A Trump reelection may prompt Kim to remind Washington policymakers that time is not on their side, despite the continued presence of sanctions. A Biden victory would merit a similar reminder, but would likely leave Pyongyang in a more challenging position as it anticipates the results of a new administration’s policy review in the first months of 2021.

What the parade does in the end is clarify the big picture about North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons possessor: its nuclear forces grow larger and more refined with every passing week. Having largely crossed the qualitative thresholds it felt were needed for a rudimentary and minimally credible deterrent in 2017, Pyongyang is continuing to evolve its force. 

Ankit Panda is editor-at-large at The Diplomat, the Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of ‘Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea’ (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2020). Follow him on Twitter at @nktpnd.